Turbid, raging floodwaters in Yellowstone National Park’s devastated Northern Range have yet to fully subside, but it’s already clear that the disaster will vastly alter a 2022 trip to Wyoming’s top tourist destination.
For starters, not just anyone will be able to enter Yellowstone. Those who do get in via a hotel, campsite or activity reservation — or a limited day-use permit — will find upwards of 90 miles of road and the vast majority of the northern park closed.
Changes stem from the worst flooding in the 150-year-old national park’s history. Dramatic footage of National Park Service houses afloat in the Yellowstone River and the swollen river consuming sections of the winding North Entrance Road through Gardner Canyon have captured the nation’s attention. Federal officials are just beginning to survey the damage and put together the pieces, but Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly was blunt about implications to the park Tuesday on a press call.
All of Yellowstone’s northernmost major roads — from Gardiner clear to Cooke City, Montana — “likely” will not reopen in 2022.
“We’ll stay as optimistic as possible,” Sholly said, “but even if we got started right now I’m not sure we could get those roads on the northern end reopened.”
Tentatively, Yellowstone is also planning to close travel north of Norris and Canyon, according to Xanterra’s Mike Keller, who manages operations for the park’s largest concessionaire. That means that three of the northern loop’s four segments would be off-limits.
“Visitors will not be able to reach the northern part of the park,” Keller said.
Xanterra took quick actions to adjust its operations in response: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Roosevelt Lodge and adjoining cabins at both sites will not reopen this summer, Keller said. A host of Park Service-run campgrounds — Mammoth, Tower, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek, Indian Creek and Norris — are also slated for a season-long closure, he said.
The loss of two of Yellowstone’s five entrances, many lodging and campgrounds units and its most popular wildlife watching area — Lamar Valley — leaves the park pinched and unable to realistically accommodate the nearly 5 million visits it anticipated.
“One thing we definitely know is that half the park cannot support all of the visitation,” Sholly said. “So we are exploring some timed-entry [or] reservation-type systems.”
Yellowstone hasn’t officially announced when it’s opening its southern loop, which connects Jackson Hole and Cody to West Yellowstone, Montana, with Yellowstone Lake in the middle of it all. But it aims to do so soon.
“The hope is that on Monday or sometime early next week — Monday being the target, right now — they will reopen the southern portion of the park,” Keller said Wednesday. “The Park Service makes the final call on this at the end of the day.”
Some southern Yellowstone services may remain closed for longer. The Lewis Lake campground will be closed through June 25, according to a Park Service email canceling a reservation sent to a WyoFile staffer.
While it remains to be seen what the Park Service rolls out in terms of a visitor-access program, ordinary unfettered admission of the public on such a limited area wouldn’t be tenable. Sticking to the status quo, Keller said, would overrun the infrastructure.
“We’re kind of waiting with bated breath to see how the Park Service is going to do this,” Keller said. “I don’t know the numbers by gate. Nothing’s been shared with us, yet.”
What has been shared, he said, is that Yellowstone will admit any visitor who has a reservation for a hotel, campsite or activity through the east, south and west gates.
During a town hall-style call with Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem community leaders on Wednesday, Sholly shared a few more details. Tina Hoebelheinrich, CEO at the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, attended and relayed some of the details. Reservations will be administered through the federal site Recreation.gov so there’s continuity with other national parks already using such systems. Be advised, getting the new Yellowstone-specific access system up and running will take three to five weeks, she said.
Rebuilding the most damaged parts of Yellowstone Park and areas of the Yellowstone River watershed downstream into Montana is sure to take longer, years even. What recovery looks like to Park Service infrastructure is not yet known.
“It’s extensive,” Sholly said of the damage. “But we will not know exactly what the timelines are, what the costs are or any of that information until we get teams on the ground and can actually assess what happened and what it’s going to take to repair it.”
On Tuesday morning Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte declared a statewide disaster. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon followed suit Wednesday afternoon, two days after the park closed, signaling he will sign an emergency declaration in response to Yellowstone’s historic flooding. The declaration will open up some federal funding channels to help cover Wyoming road repairs, according to a statement from his office.
“We’re focused on assisting wherever possible right now,” Gordon spokesperson Michael Pearlman said.
Outside of Yellowstone, areas of Wyoming affected by the extraordinary rain-on-snow weather event mostly dodged the degree of devastation floodwaters delivered within the park. Wyoming roads and bridges sustained “minimal” damage, according to a statement from the governor’s office. Still, there were some impacts.
East of Yellowstone in the North Fork of the Shoshone River drainage, floodwaters blew through an impoundment and closed down the Pahaska Teepee Resort, the Powell Tribune reported. The Shoshone National Forest announced it may close some northermore campgrounds, roads and trails due to snowmelt-driven flooding, which could be exacerbated by temperatures that could exceed 90 degrees by Friday.
Accommodating the people
Already, Xanterra has reassigned and rehoused its employees who were stationed in Mammoth and Roosevelt for the summer, Keller said.
As for the tourists, they’ll likely be deflected to Yellowstone’s less-affected gateway communities, like Jackson, Dubois, Cody and West Yellowstone, Montana.
Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park, experienced an inundation of people in the three days since their northerly neighbor stopped admitting visitors. Those tourists, thrust into plan B by the whims of nature, made do, camping by the dozens in places like the Teton County Fairgrounds.
The cold, wet spring and a closed Jackson Hole Airport has suppressed the 2022 tourism season so far in Teton County, but if the normal summer crowds return, the community would already be at capacity and overrun — and that’s not factoring the potential for deflected Yellowstone visitors.
In Cody and the broader Bighorn Basin, there are unfilled beds in hotels and capacity to absorb visitors that spillover from northern Yellowstone, Hoebelheinrich said.
“We absolutely would welcome them,” she said of evacuees and future Yellowstone goers. “There’s room.”
During the Yellowstone press call, Park County, Montana commissioner Bill Berg also encouraged tourists to pay the hard-hit Gardiner and Cooke City a visit, even with the lack of road connectivity.
“It’s a Yellowstone town and it lives and dies by tourism, and this is going to be a pretty big hit,” Berg said of Gardiner. “When we’re talking about how to support gateway communities, I want to add two words: gift certificates. They put cash in the registers of those businesses, and are a future promise of support.”
Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober said it remains to be seen how tourist travel patterns will shake out in the wake of the historic floods. It’s not assured, she said, that less-affected Yellowstone gateway communities in Wyoming receive big influxes of people.
“This was the first year since 2019 that every stop in Yellowstone was open to accommodate visitors,” Shober said, “and now we’ve taken a big part of the inventory out.”
Shober pointed out that one silver lining of the natural disaster is it gives Yellowstone-bound roadtrippers more cause to draw out their time spent exploring other reaches of Wyoming, be it Fossil Butte National Monument, Devils Tower or the Red Desert. Already, there’s evidence that less-known areas have capitalized.
“One of my staff was in Thermopolis last night,” Shober said Thursday morning. “She said that the Wyoming Dinosaur Center was packed, and they said they’d been packed all week from people who decided to stop and spend a little bit more time.”